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Guest Opinion : Presence as varied as Arizona’s history

As the nation commemorates Black History Month, February is a good time to note that African-Americans long have been making history in Arizona.

Among the earliest in Tucson were carpenter Isiah Bell and his wife, Mary, who arrived before 1870. Charles Cooper, occupation unknown, was in the Tucson area around the same time.

The first documented black birth in Arizona was born to Mary Green in the Salt River Valley area of Phoenix.

Sam Bostick, one of the first African-American businessmen with property in downtown Tucson, was in the 1870 census.

In 1891, we find Charles Williams, known as “Banjo Dick,” a handyman who used to stroll to Levins Park in the evening, playing his banjo. He worked in one of the houses near the current Museum of Art, near the Fish House.

A mine was named for Williams by some local African-American gold miners. It attracted national attention and support, even from Marcus Garvey, a national figure noted for leading a black “Back to Africa” movement.

Charles Embers came to Tucson from Mormon Country in Utah, where he and his family lived during the period when there were black Mormon priests, such as Elijah Abel. Embers later became a ranch cook at the Vulture Mine near Wickenberg and elsewhere.

Caleb Martin, an ex-slave from Mississippi, was the most successful black rancher in the Territory in 1900. He had 300 head of cattle and 640 acres near Willcox, and his son and grandsons participated in the rodeo there.

His granddaughter, Jesse Martin Washington, appears in a rare photograph of an African-American woman riding a bucking horse. She later became a cook in a fraternity house at the University of Arizona.

Her brother, Caleb Martin Jr., was honored by Rex Allen Sr. in the Willcox Cowboy Hall of Fame.

More contemporary Tucsonans include Margaret Campbell, author of “Iba the Dawn,” published in 1968 – the first African-American novelist in Arizona. Her story takes place after the great flood of biblical times.

Mrs. Campbell lived underground in an apartment she helped dig at 1926 S. Santa Rita in the South Park neighborhood. Her son lived next door, and she used to baby-sit her grandchildren.

Many in the area remember her. Cress Lander remembers her coming into his family’s store in the South Park neighborhood.

She died in 1971.

Janet (nee Harmon) Bragg came to Tucson in 1972, bought her own airplane and became a pilot.

She endured gender and racial discrimination and was forced to even buy her own tools to repair her plane.

She recently was honored with placement in the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame.

You can see her awards and biographical information at the Pima Air & Space Museum, 6000 E. Valencia Road.

A pilot training group named its local chapter after Janet Bragg.

The Janet Bragg Chapter of the Black Pilots of America trains youths who want to learn to fly. One of the first youth pilots was Corrine Sheret.

Mrs. Bragg’s role model was Bessie Coleman, who has a road named for her near the Chicago airport.

Mrs. Bragg returned to Illinois as her health failed, and she died there in the 1990s.

A memorial was held for her at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Tucson.

Gloria Smith is an author and former coordinator of black studies for the University of Arizona.


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